Gardendale’s Grayson Phillips named one of America’s top 10 youth volunteers of 2018

Prudential Spirit of Community Awards 2018
Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn congratulates Grayson Phillips, 18, of Gardendale (center) and Katherine Huggins, 14, of Florence (right) on being named Alabama's top two youth volunteers for 2018 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

A senior at Essential Church School, 18 year old Grayson Phillips of Gardendale, Ala. started a nonprofit at only 15 to buy all-terrain power wheelchairs for disabled children and young adults that allow them to safely navigate the great outdoors with their peers. On Monday, Phillips efforts earned him national recognition.

Selected from a field of more than 29,000 youth volunteers from across the country, Phillips has earned the title of National Honoree by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, along with a personal award of $5,000, an engraved gold medallion, a crystal trophy for his school, and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for a nonprofit charitable organization of his choice.

Phillips, who was born with spina bifida, knew all too well the frustration of not being able to easily follow his fellow Boy Scouts during campouts and other outdoor activities. “I was constantly getting stuck in the mud or in the sand in the woods and on the beach in my manual wheelchair,” Phillips said.

But after raising money to buy his own Action Track chair and seeing how dramatically it changed his life, he wanted others with disabilities to experience the same freedom. Thus, he created the nonprofit.

To publicize his organization and fundraising events, Phillips created a website, utilized social media, sent out press releases, and set up a booth at outdoor expos. He asked local businesses for donations, and spoke at schools to recruit volunteers.

Thus far, Phillips has provided all-terrain power wheelchairs worth more than $84,000 to seven people who have a passion for the outdoors, but not the money to buy their own. They include a Mississippi girl with cerebral palsy who loves the beach, a girl in North Carolina who now can go hunting, and an Alabama boy who used his new chair to help clean up his community during a church service day.

“It is important to me to help as many disabled kids as possible get outdoors because I know what it feels like to experience independence for the first time,” explained Phillips.

State honorees

Also honored this week in Washington, D.C., was Katherine Huggins, 14, of Florence, Ala. who was presented a state award. Grayson and Katherine were named Alabama’s top youth volunteers in February, and were officially recognized last night at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History along with the top two youth volunteers in each other state and the District of Columbia.

At that event, each of the 102 State Honorees for 2018 received $1,000 awards as well as personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn. The honorees each also received engraved silver medallions and all-expense-paid trips with a parent to Washington, D.C., for this week’s recognition events.

Huggins, a member of Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama and an eighth-grader at Wilson High School, delivered 25 clear storage containers filled with small stuffed animals to every volunteer fire department in her county so that firefighters could give them to children suffering the effects of fire, car accidents and domestic upheaval.

In the past, Huggins had donated some of her own stuffed animals to local fire and police departments to send out with officers and firefighters on calls involving children. But last year, she and a friend who also loves stuffed animals decided to do more. They came up with the idea of collecting and donating new and gently-used stuffed animals for all of their county’s volunteer fire departments to deliver.

“I knew the city had programs, but the county did not,” explained Huggins. “I felt it was important that the kids in the county have a comfort item.”

To get local fire departments on board, Huggings met with fire officials and spoke at two meetings of the county firefighters association. Then she made flyers and posted them around town to solicit stuffed animal donations. She enlisted the help of friends and family to collect the animals, which she washed, sorted, and packed into 25 clear storage containers labeled “Tender Hearts.”

The containers were then delivered to fire stations throughout the county so that officials responding to emergencies would have a furry friend to leave behind with a frightened child. The project has since led Huggings to other volunteer opportunities, including making a fire safety poster, donating stuffed animals to a library, and supervising activities for young children.

Prudential Spirit of Community Awards

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a national youth recognition program sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

“These honorees exemplify something we’ve known for a long time – that young volunteers have the power to bring meaningful change to their communities,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “These students have shown leadership and determination well beyond their years, and it’s a privilege to celebrate their service.”

“Through their acts of service, these honorees drive home a powerful lesson for their peers: that one student really can make a difference,” added Daniel P. Kelley, president of NASSP. “We are honored to shine a spotlight on the compassion, drive and ingenuity of each of these young volunteers.”

Phillips was among 10 national honorees.